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October 25, 2001

FORMER BILLY GRAHAM ORGANIST DIES

By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent,
ASSIST News Service

LOS ANGELES, California (ANS) -- Virtuoso organist and composer Paul Mickelson, who played for the Billy Graham crusades and went on to a brilliant music career, died October 21 of a heart attack.  He was 73. 

He was traveling with his wife Barbara in Sacramento, California at the time of his death.  “They went out to eat; he sat down; his head went back, and he was in the arms of Jesus,” says Joann Johnson, a longtime friend.

Mickelson played for the Billy Graham crusades during an eight-year period, from 1950-57.  One of the highlights with Graham was the 1954 Greater London Crusade, in which Mickelson played before 187,000 people at two meetings held on the same day. He was only 21 when he started with Graham.

“Those days were very precious to him,” says his wife Barbara.  “Seeing the tens of thousands of people who accepted Christ and seeing the power and fervency of Billy’s preaching, and the team atmosphere, was really a blessing for him,” Barbara says. 

It was a difficult choice for him to leave Graham.  “He has a heart for evangelism,” Barbara says.  “You can’t travel on an aggressive travel schedule and compose, arrange, produce and perform.  He wanted to do everything,” she says.  “It was a really hard choice because his passion was in both directions.”

He left the Graham organization at the end of the New York crusade in 1957, to devote full-time to his recording ministry.

“He was one of the most outstanding organists in America,” says Jack Dabner, his senior pastor at United Community Church of Glendale.  Indeed, Reader’s Digest voted Mickelson one of the Top 10 organists in America during the Seventies.

Raised in Burbank, California, Mickelson started studying music at nine years old.  At 16, while part of the Burbank Church of the Foursquare Gospel, he had his radio debut on KMPC radio in Los Angeles as an organist for the weekly program “Challenge to Youth.”  The following year he became the organist for “The Morning Chapel Hour” heard coast to coast.

By the age of 19 he was heard on 20 different radio programs each week and had his own organ recital—all live radio programs. 

From 1953-58 he was under contract with RCA Victor as a recording artist and director of the company’s religious department.  He recorded scores of his own orchestral and choral arrangements. In 1958 he became vice-president and musical director of Word Records.

“He worked in eight different genres of Christian music,” Barbara says, “so he’s hard to classify.  He was both a performer and an artist, working with organ, piano, choir, and full orchestra.”

In 1961 he founded Supreme Records, where he produced Pat Boone’s first albums, as well as recordings for Jerome Hines, Ethel Waters, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In 1973 the company was sold to Zondervan.

One of his major achievements was a collaboration with Bruce Stacey on “The Scroll,” used in Expo 86 at the religious pavilion.  Stacey did the writing and Mickelson did the arranging, while conducting the London Symphony for the project.  

“That was innovative work because it was not his traditional style,” Barbara says.  “He was doing contemporary things bordering on soft rock—it was a very complex project.” 

In the early Nineties he traveled with the Carter Report on six evangelistic campaigns to Russia, after the fall of communism.  “That was such a blessing to see 10,000 to 20,000 people raise their hand to accept Christ,” Barbara says.  “In Kiev he witnessed 3500 people being baptized in the Dniper River,” she says. “It was just like a second Pentecost—it was thrilling for him.”  In many ways, these experiences took him back to his youth with the Graham crusades.

One of the amazing things about Mickelson was his sheer knowledge of hymnology.  “He knew over three thousand hymns by heart and could transpose everything in his head,” Barbara says.  “He thoroughly understood orchestration and composing,” she says.  “He was an absolute musical genius; he could do it all in his head—it was flawless.”

“The average person couldn’t do the things he did.  There was a definite anointing on his life, and it’s a great loss to the Christian community.”

In addition to his wife Barbara, Mickelson is survived by his sister, Mary Williams.

A memorial service for Mickelson will be held Saturday, October 27th, at 2:00 p.m. at United Community Church of Glendale, located at 333 E. Colorado Blvd. in Glendale. 


Mark Ellis is a Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service.  He is also the Assistant Pastor at Calvary Evangelical Free Church of Laguna Beach, CA. He grew up in Southern California and worked for 18 years in the commercial real estate industry before entering Christian ministry.   

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